Jamie Martin is a management consultant and a former adviser to Michael Gove.
In the wake of this Conservative Party Conference, Jeremy Corbyn’s election offers the Conservatives the prospect of an electoral hegemony (three terms or more in office) afforded it only twice since the second world war. For this to matter to history, and not just historians, it is not good enough merely to win the next election. The party must forge a new political consensus built on common ground with the British people.
There are two models for long-term Tory governments. The first, practiced from 1951-1964, is to dominate the political battleground as it currently exists. Harold Macmillan described this (and his) positioning as “stuck in the middle: with socialists on one end of the spectrum, and laissez-faire on the other”. While the Conservatives were in power for 13 years, such was their failure to redefine the era’s intellectual consensus it was partly named after Labour’s leader.
The second model was an explicit rejection of the first. Keith Joseph, its architect, dismissed the middle ground as “the lowest common denominator obtained from a calculus of assumed electoral expediency “. He instead advocated “fighting a vigorous battle of ideas” in order to change the battleground itself. Joseph’s ally, Margaret Thatcher, did that with such aplomb that it brought her three general election victories and left no-one in doubt as to who had defined the era.
These two examples prove what Fraser Nelson argued in his Keith Joseph memorial lecture on the eve of the 2010 General Election: “Winning is not enough” – election victories don’t change history, only intellectual ones do. David Cameron and George Osborne’s careful election campaign of two months later, fought on trust and competence, was straight out of the Macmillan playbook.
The result was that by 2015 Labour had a nine point lead among those who voted based on policy. Only 22 per cent of people who switched from Labour to the Conservatives said they shared more values with the party than when they previously voted against it. That second election was won – but the battle of ideas had barely begun.
After three successive election defeats, in the midst of a coalition and a difficult economic recovery, there is a case that winning was enough in 2010 or even 2015. It cannot be now. Cameron and (even more so) Osborne have a huge opportunity to build a new political consensus and change Britain for the better.
The first step will be to realise that occupation of the middle ground is not a sustainable electoral advantage. It is a marriage of convenience with the electorate, to be dissolved as soon as Labour finds an electable leader or voters grow tired of an artificial status quo.
That the middle ground would even initially be the public’s preferred policy position is a Westminster myth. The public takes a far tougher line on immigration, benefits, terrorism and aspects of the EU than the Conservatives currently do. Correspondingly, on taxing wealth, the desire to spend significantly more on the NHS or to nationalise the railways, Corbyn is far more mainstream than commentators believe. Read any focus group report: it is hard to imagine anything that voters would find more unappealing than a consensus of politicians’ views.
The second is to realise that if you win without promising much you don’t morally or constitutionally have the right to do very much. The perfect illustration of this was the fate of deficit reduction and NHS reform in the last parliament. The intellectual runway had been cleared for the former, but not for the latter. While deficit reduction became one of the government’s most strongly supported policies, NHS reform was widely opposed. The fewer of these arguments you engage in, the less room you have to act.
The third step will be to develop a coherent vision built upon common ground with the public. This is what Osborne has begun to do with corporation tax, deficit reduction and benefit cuts. Win the intellectual argument and implement a beneficial policy, and both your support and your room to implement further change grows. As soon as the middle ground has shifted toward this common ground, your opponents change their own position and the battle of ideas has been won.
I believe an opportunity for such a common ground exists today. It could be built on core Conservative principles: a strong scepticism about what government can and should do, but a more powerful optimism about what ordinary working people can achieve.
Such a common ground would include the following:
1. An immigration policy based on the Australian points system. It is not only more rational to base immigration on skills, not nationality, it is also so popular that this policy is apparently brought up spontaneously in focus groups. It addresses the public’s huge concern about immigration, supporting economically important groups like foreign students or scientists. These changes would be at the centre of the EU renegotiation.
2. A contribution-based welfare system. The public believe the welfare system is too generous to those who could work but do not. A new system of personal accounts, like those in Denmark or Singapore, would see workers credited (equally) for each year of contributions. Only those who have paid in to the system (or are unable to pay in) would receive benefits. A lower benefits cap and reductions in benefits going to higher earners would allow higher payments to the poorest pensioners and the disabled.
3. Lower taxes on work, higher taxes on wealth. Voters rightly believe that taxes are too high but that the wealthiest often do not pay a fair share. Scrapping non-dom status, reforming capital gains tax so service firms’ partners pay PAYE rates (but true entrepreneurs are protected), and higher council tax bands would allow the threshold for paying the 20p and 40p rates to rise substantially.
4. Tax cuts for apprenticeships. The public strongly support apprenticeships but are wise to the fallacy of low quality degrees. Two and three year apprenticeships could be exempted from employers and employee national insurance, and made eligible for training grants. This could be paid for by restricting student loans to only those degrees evidence shows will pay it back (Philosophy, Classics or English at top departments would pass this test).
These policies, and this approach, will have limited appeal to Westminster commentators. They will instead advocate chasing the shifting middle ground as Corbyn drags it leftwards. This would be to move further away from the British people and a new consensus. For as Keith Joseph argued in 1976: “Fortunately, people have been less easy to change than politicians. So we can still go back to the people, the bedrock of all our policies, and our common ground begins with them”.